“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” – Wendell Berry
As I stood in the Arctic twilight I took the clear skies above our camp as a good omen. Before ducking into my tent for the night I laid my drysuit over the packraft to let it dry out. I woke up to the sound of rain just a few hours later.
The following morning as I climbed back into my wet dry suit I couldn’t help but smile, I wouldn’t trade this moment for anything. I’d been planning this trip for eight months. Convincing four friends to join me in packrafting 100 miles between the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Kobuk Valley National Park in the western Brooks Range of Alaska. Our team had spent hours looking at google earth images, pouring over old trip reports and topo maps trying to find the best rivers and mountains to run. Now that we were on the water a little cold rain wasn’t going to bring down our spirits.
I’ve had my fair share of adventures. From thru-hiking the 2,652 mile Pacific Crest Trail, biking the Tour Divide from Canada to Mexico, and exploring many off-trail routes along the Sierra Nevada, Wind River, and Appalachian Mountain ranges. This trip, like many before, was sparked by a curiosity to go where I’d never been and to explore the wilderness under human power in new and unique ways. A life spent outside is marked by the challenges you face. Plans fall apart, gear fails you, weather discourages you, and you must face the uncomfortable decision of whether or not to push forward. This trip was no exception.
The start of our adventure was plagued with misfortune. A lost bag and incoming weather delays caused us to spend an extra day holed up in the Kotzebue hotel kicking our heels and burning time. The challenges only continued as we finally reached the backcountry and within two hundred yards of the put-in, two of our team members were swimming in the arctic waters and an epic yard sale of gear opened up for business. During every project I’ve been on there comes a moment where the screws turn and the level of consequence sharply comes into focus. As we sat on the river bank just downstream of the action and took stock of our situation you could see the gears turning in everyone’s heads.
This wasn’t just a vacation in Alaska. We were alone in the wilderness, hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital and completely on our own. If there is one certainty about the river, it’s that the water will keep moving. Whether or not you choose the correct line or eddy out, eventually, you must rejoin the current. With new respect for the river, we set off again. Paddling close together in the swift-moving current we quickly covered miles as we passed further down the valley. Later that day as the adrenaline subsided and our muscles warmed up the laughter and jokes returned to the group.
Over the following days we floated the turquoise water west towards the coast. The rugged mountains gave way to rolling hills and the river began to slowly snake across the wide open landscape. We paddled through the rain and the cold; through the welcome sun and the warm afternoons. We paddled into headwinds and into the sunset. We paddled because that’s what we came here for.
Alaska is truly the wild and untamed last frontier. You can read all of the guidebooks, spend hours planning your itinerary to a T, and still, you must face the reality that nothing is certain in this northern territory.
As I stare out the window of the bush plane on the flight back to civilization I considered the path my life has taken to bring me to this point. Looking back now I can see where the forks in the road lie. I see a young boy playing in the creek behind the house as the summer draws to an end. The same curiosity is still there – the unanswered question of what lies around the next river bend. I understand now that I’ll always be chasing the unanswered question. The methods may change and the style of travel will vary but the spirit of adventure will live on.
Samuel Martin is a commercial & editorial photographer based out of western North Carolina with a focus on human powered movement and outdoor lifestyle. Learn more at www.spmartin.com or follow Samuel on Instagram (@spmartin_).